A child mummy with funerary items, from the Tres Ventanas cave in Peru

Scientists Set to Unravel Secrets of Oldest Peruvian Mummies Ever Found

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Ancient people in the mountains of Peru revered their ancestors so much they mummified them and included their bodies in community activities, archaeologists say. Now a new study of four 8,000- to 10,000-year-old mummies from Peru's Tres Ventanas (‘Three Windows’) cave may help researchers understand more about these people, who cultivated potatoes and corn and domesticated animals around the same time as farmers in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

In recent years mummies from around the world have undergone analysis using modern scientific and medical techniques. The entire June 2015 issue of the scientific journal The Anatomical Record , all 26 articles, is devoted to studies of mummies.

What scientists learned about the Tres Ventanas mummies is detailed in a new study conducted by medical and archaeological scholars. The authors, led by L. Samuel Wann of the Paleocardiology Founation of Columbia St. Mary's Healthcare in the U.S. city of Milwaukee, wrote:

The Tres Ventanas mummies of Peru are thought to be among the oldest mummies in existence… A preliminary assessment is made of the potential of these mummies for use in future research on mummified remains. Although the Tres Ventanas cave and the four mummies were explored and then excavated by Frederic Engel in 1966-'67 … the importance of both the physical remains and the context in which they were found has only come to light in the last few years. Most important is the paleopathological examination of these remains since these mummies are found in a high altitude area of Peru where adaptation to the limited partial pressure of oxygen is a key component in broadening our understanding of human diversity in past populations.

The discovery of the cave is interesting. In 1966 Berndardino Ojeda was lost during an archaeological expedition of the coastal highlands of Central Peru in the region of Chilca, when he came upon the cave. The fertile valley of the glacier-fed Chilca River, which empties into the Pacific, has been inhabited for 10,000 years. Ojeda and Engel explored the Tres Ventanas cave and found evidence of human habitation by hunter-gatherers going back 10,000 years. So these mummies go back perhaps almost to the earliest days of Peruvian pioneers.

Mouths of the Tres Ventanas cave, which are believed to have been dug in part by ancient mega-sloths.

Mouths of the Tres Ventanas cave, which are believed to have been dug in part by ancient mega-sloths. (Photo by The Anamotical Record)

“Central to an understanding of mummification in pre-Colombian Peru is the cultural aspect of ancestor worship.” the authors wrote. “In Peru, without the aid of surgical or chemical preparation, pre-Colombian peoples naturally dehydrated their ancestors so that, through their mummification, they could keep the deceased 'alive' as part of the community. The mummies were looked after and brought back from their graves to be fed, clothed and even consulted.”

The Tres Ventanas mummies are at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Biodiversidad Agricultura  y Alimentaciòn in Lima. The museum has an extraordinary collection, the article states, with “a rich and comprehensive display on the origins of the human occupation of prehistoric Peru, including evidence of animal domestication and agriculture coeval [contemporaneous] with developments in other civilizations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt.” The four mummies are kept in an oxygen-free capsule that protects them from disintegration.

The mummies were never eviscerated or altered with substances that would change their molecular makeup. The ancient people of Tres Ventana mummified their loved one's remains through dehydration, which was common in the Andes Mountains of South America. Unlike coastal mummies, which are wrapped in cotton, the Tres Ventanas mummies were wrapped in fur.

While research teams in recent years have been examining ancient mummies from Egypt, Peru, Pueblo and the Aleutian Islands for evidence of cardiac disease, the Tres Ventanas mummies have not yet undergone such analysis, though they may yet undergo CT scans. The Peruvian mummies that were examined by non-destructive X-ray computed tomography will give evidence for the prehistoric presence or absence of artherosclerosis (heart disease) in highland areas.

The authors of the article on the Tres Ventanas mummies note that the cold, high altitude of the cave, at 3,850 meters (12,631 feet) above sea level, may have meant the people who lived in those caves were not subject to communicable diseases as much as people at lower altitudes. And the researchers expect to find that their hearts are larger than other people because of reduced oxygen at the high altitude. The heart has to pump more blood when there is less oxygen and increased pumping makes the heart larger.

Comments

Very interesting article and I would like to hear about the results of their analysis.  Can they obtain DNA?  The article says “modern medical techniques,” whatever that may mean.

But as to the dating of as old as 10,000 years, the article gives no real explanation how they got such dates except, “Ojeda and Engel explored the Tres Ventanas cave and found evidence of human habitation by hunter-gatherers going back 10,000 years.”

What evidence?  What qualifications did Ojeda and Engel have to make this dating?  Has anyone checked it?  Why not 2, or 3, or 4, or 5 thousand years old?

I ask these questions because so much “dating” in anthropology and archaeology comes done to pure guess work.  Everything depends on multiple assumptions, which makes it much more like guessing than science.  

Sometimes I think the researchers want to make things older either to make it seem more important or to move lack of understanding backwards in time.  This happens a lot in astronomy of the solar system, where instead of trying to explain observations, people say “it happened a long time ago.”  Who cares when it happened, how did it happen.

I think we have to accept that we can’t put accurate dates on lots of things in the past.  All of the dating methods used today have major flaws.  From guessing the rate of sedimentation to more scientific methods like carbon 14 and pottasium argon, all have major flaws and limitations.

 

Tom Carberry

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